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December 27, 2021

How To Come Up With Short Film Ideas

Almost every working director in Hollywood started by making short films first, and most emerging screenwriters start with great feature scripts first. There's nothing necessarily wrong with writing feature scripts first, but I think it's an excellent idea for every screenwriter to write a couple of short films to flex their writer's muscles.

However, if you want to write your own short film, coming up with short film ideas might be a total pain. Worry not; I'm here to help.

Creating short film ideas

So, first things first, what kind of ideas are even eligible for a short film script?

Let's start with the obvious. The script has got to be short. If a TV show is like a novel and a film is like a short story, then a short film is like poetry. It's got to be quick and sweet, and every single word has got to pack a punch. It also uses the same formatting rules as feature and TV scripts, so ensure you've got those basics down before starting.

If you haven't written a script before, check out this article that will catch you up.

So, any idea you come up with has to be something short. Don't tell the story of an entire space opera in the ten minutes most shorts get. Instead, ten minutes is an ideal length of time to test out one powerful idea. It's usually one situation, a couple of characters, and the resolution of that single situation.

Also, most short films aren't big-budget affairs. If at all possible, try and keep your idea within a budget. Again, while a space opera might be fun, the chances of being filmed are pretty small. Instead, something that involves a limited location with only a few actors and minor special effects has the best chance of getting made.

So with no further ado, here are some tips for developing short film ideas.

1. Watch short films

Just like how feature screenwriters should watch as many movies as they can, and TV writers should watch lots of TV, the easiest way to develop short film ideas is to watch lots and lots of short films.

Short films can be easily found on YouTube, but you can also try more dedicated websites like Vimeo, Short of the Week, or Short.TV for new shorts coming out. Cast as wide a net as you possibly can to pick up as much of the good stuff as you can.

If possible, try and seek out short films that play in a similar area to yours. For example, if you want to write a horror short, you should seek out others and see what they do. Sometimes when you watch another quick, new ideas can spark, or you might think that "if only they had done this with the premise instead," which can lead to great ideas too.

That being said, don't be afraid to go into genres you usually wouldn't. Who knows, a cute romance short film may spark more ideas than going back to ground you know well.

2. Be a sponge

Not literally, but this is something I tell myself every day. The world is big, dynamic, and exciting. There's always something going on, and there's so much information out there that can spark the imagination.

As you go about your day, adopt a more curious mindset. Look at things you've never seen before, explore the unexplored, and dig deeper into everyday experiences. Maybe you're reading the news, and they mention something you've never heard about before. Try googling out and learning more. Who knows what you'll learn.

I love bringing a notebook with me wherever I go. We have so many thoughts throughout the day, but usually, we discard them without a second thought and never remember them. Instead, try writing down some of your thoughts and coming back to them. This will teach you to pay more careful attention to what's going on inside of your head, and who knows what new thoughts could spark inspiration for a new story.

3. Poach from other scripts

Let's say you've got three feature scripts done, and now you want to write a short, but you can't think of a single idea. So here's the good news, you've already written a bunch of shorts!

Look back through those scripts and find some of the best scenes. Think about how you could take the core idea of those scenes and recontextualize it for short. For example, there might be a fantastic bank robbery scene in your heist script. Maybe that scene could work as a short? Sure, a short version of that scene might not have the broader overarching plot elements, but with some modifications, it might work.

This method has the dual effect of generating lots of short ideas and reevaluating the original scenes. Maybe when you're working on a short film version of a particular scene, you find a way of making it much better. You can reincorporate these changes into the original script, making both better!

4. Exercise your brain

Okay, maybe you can't come up with any ideas no matter what you try. There are just too many ideas and too many possibilities.

Try reigning yourself back…way back.

Instead of thinking about the millions of possibilities for stories, restrict the kind of idea you want to follow. For example, only come up with short ideas that could be shot in a single bedroom. Suddenly lots of these crazy ideas go out the window now that a firm limitation has been set.

This is where your creativity comes in. When the brain is put in the box, it will do everything in its power to make that box enjoyable. How many possible kinds of movies could you make in your bedroom? What kind of scenes has never been shot in a bedroom? Could you make your bedroom look like another kind of room? Is someone trapped in the bedroom? Maybe there's someone outside the door trying to get in? Or maybe there's a killer under the bed?

If you're anything like me, your brain will start to go into overdrive and generate ideas at a startling pace. Of course, not all of them will be good, but having some ideas is better than having none at all. So give yourself a firm limitation and see what ideas bubble up!

Ready to write your short film?

Know that you know how to come up with short film ideas, it's time to get writing. Short films are a noble art form where every element has to work towards one single punchline or payoff. I think the limitations a short film imposes make for some super creative work, and if you follow these tips, you'll be generating great ideas in no time at all.


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How To Come Up With Short Film Ideas
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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